I’ve always enjoyed the fusion of Indian and Western music forms, from John Coltrane’s amazing sax extrapolations, to Miles Davis’ moody pieces from November ’69 featuring Indian instruments, to works by John Handy (Karuna Supreme) and Zakir Hussein (Making Music). I was also a sucker for so-called “raga-rock” as exemplified by folks ranging the Butterfield Blues Band (“East-West”!), to The Doors (“The End”) to Jefferson Airplane (“Fat Angel”). But it’s been awhile since I’ve been this jazzed (pun partially intended) by an overt mixture of Eastern and Western forms. Raga Bop Trio does indeed mix the elements of its name in unique and sometimes startling ways, but it also serves up much more, too—there are dashes of rock, funk, Caribbean and many forms of jazz improv besides just bop here.
Both saxophonist George Brooks and guitarist Prasanna have extensive backgrounds studying and playing Indian music (and Prasanna is from Chennai, India), and jazz drummer extraordinaire Steve Smith (Vital Information, et al; we’ve long ago “forgiven” his Journey career) has been dipping into Indian rhythms for a number of years. Smith has played with each of them on and off since the early 2000s; still, this marks the first time they’ve played together as a trio, and it’s a resounding success. Prasanna is a quite remarkable guitarist who moves easily from shimmering Metheny-esque sonics and solo'ing to lines that marvelously echo the sort of slide notes one hears from Indian sitar and sarod masters. Brooks, too, moves effortlessly from obviously Indian-inspired lines to more classic jazz spaces, while Smith is all over the place—alternately assertive and supportive, or both at once; always right on the money no matter what the mood. The tunes continually surprise and delight, with most featuring a mix of styles that unexpectedly appear, are developed and then surrender to some different melodic or rhythmic impulse. Besides inspired group improv flights and duo sections, there are also a number of exciting unison passages, and Smith also makes nice use of konnakol—speaking rhythmic vocal syllables—on a couple of tunes.
Let’s hope this is just the first statement by what is already a monster band.
Must Play: “Love and Hunger,” “Garuda.”
Producers: Steve Smith, George Brooks, Prasanna. Engineer: Oz Fritz. Recorded and mixed at Prairie Sun Studios (Cotati, Calif.). Mastering: Jim Brick/Absolute Audio (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.).